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cooked slices of tofu

Tofu looking super yummy!

The first people to write about tofu were writers from the Song Dynasty in China, about 900 AD. Those Song Dynasty writers thought tofu had been invented by a Taoist prince of the Han Dynasty, Liu An, about 100 AD. But tofu might be even earlier: the Greek historian Herodotus, in the 400s BC, describes people far to his East who “speak a language of their own” and might be Chinese. Herodotus says these people eat “a fruit like a bean.” From those beans they make a thick black liquid – is it soy sauce?  And they make solid cakes that they eat instead of meat, which could be tofu. He thinks this story is somehow mixed up with milk. That might be because the mashed soybeans actually look like milk.

Taoists seem to have invented tofu, but soon tofu became very popular with Chinese Buddhists. The Buddhists were strict vegetarians and didn’t eat meat or milk. Tofu can taste something like meat, and it has a lot of protein like meat, but it is made out of soybeans, so it’s totally vegan.

To make tofu, you take soybeans and soften them by soaking them in water. Then you squash them into a soybean mash. The mashed soybeans mix with the water to make bean milk. You drain out the solid parts so it’s just a liquid. Then you add acid (vinegar or citrus juice) to the bean milk, and that makes it coagulate (clump together) into something that looks like plain yogurt, which is tofu.

How to make tofu

You make cheese out of milk just the same way. Probably people got the idea to make tofu from making cheese. Tofu was a way to make something like cheese for people who didn’t have cows or sheep, because there were not very many cows or sheep in China.

Tofu can be cooked lots of different ways. You can fry it, or bake it, or eat it raw.

The Chinese god of war, Kuan-Ti, was supposed to have been a tofu-seller when he was a child (before he became a god). But Kuan-Ti was a child during the Han Dynasty, so either tofu was invented earlier than most historians think, or Kuan-Ti must have been selling something else.

Learn by Doing – Chinese food project
More about tea
Another article about Chinese food

Bibliography and further reading about food in ancient China:

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